Moonrise Over Two Towns

Moonrise Over Hernandez (1941)

Ansel Adams is known for his famous photos of Yosemite but one of my favorite photos of his is one titled “Moonrise Over Hernadez.” In October 1941, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes hired photographer Ansel Adams for six months to create photographs of lands under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior, for use as mural-sized prints for decoration of the department’s new Interior Museum. Adams was accompanied by his young son Michael and his best friend Cedric Wright on a long road trip around the west. They came upon a scene with with unusual light while traveling through the Chama River Valley toward Espanola in late afternoon on November 1.

The initial publication of the scene titled Moonrise Over Hernadez was at the end of 1942, with a two-page image in U.S. Camera Annual 1943, having being selected by the “photo judge” of U.S. Camera, Edward Steichen. In that publication, Adams gave this account:

“It was made after sundown, there was a twilight glow on the distant peaks and clouds. The average light values of the foreground were placed on the ‘U’ of the Weston Master meter; apparently the values of the moon and distant peaks did not lie higher than the ‘A’ of the meter … Some may consider this photograph a ‘tour de force’ but I think of it as a rather normal photograph of a typical New Mexican landscape. Twilight photography is unfortunately neglected; what may be drab and uninteresting by daylight may assume a magnificent quality in the halflight between sunset and dark.”

Adams’ later accounts were more dramatic. In his autobiography, completed by his assistant Cedric Wright and editor Mary Alinder shortly after his 1984 death, his traveling companion notes that Adams encountered the “fantastic scene” of a church and cemetery near Hernandez, New Mexico, and pulled to the side of the road. Adams recalled that he yelled at his son Michael and at Wright to “Get this! Get that, for God’s sake! We don’t have much time!” Desperate to capture the image in the fading light, they scrambled to set up the tripod and camera, knowing that only moments remained before the light was gone. Adams had given a similar account in his 1983 book Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs noting:

“I could not find my Weston exposure meter! The situation was desperate: the low sun was trailing the edge of clouds in the west, and shadow would soon dim the white crosses … I suddenly realized that I knew the luminance of the Moon – 250 cd/ft2. Using the Exposure Formula, I placed this value on Zone VII  … Realizing as I released the shutter that I had an unusual photograph which deserved a duplicate negative, I quickly reversed the film holder, but as I pulled the darkslide, the sunlight passed from the white crosses. I was a few seconds too late! The lone negative suddenly became precious.”

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Moonrise Over New Albany (2020)

With the above in mind, it seemed appropriate that I name a shot over my town taken with my Mavic Air 2 drone “Moonrise Over New Albany.” The mechanics of photography have changed much over the years since Adams’ famous photograph. I did not have to use a light meter but simply put my drone about a hundred feet up over my neighborhood around twilight on an evening in late September with a full moon. The photo was taken using the drone’s amazing 48 megapixel camera and its High Dynamic Range feature of taking 3 automatic exposure bracketed shots and then merging and processing them in Photomatix Pro.

I wonder what Ansel Adams would do with a drone?

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